main: March 2009 Archives
I've just come off a WNYC Smackdown head-to-head with Anne Midgette on the never-ending question of my Wagner right or wrong. You can hear the debate here, I think, and I'm not going to use this space to have the last word on her.
What is extraordinary, though, is how every time one attempts to balance the monstrosity of Wagner's ego and his cult against the musical genius of the work, you run up against a brick wall - not Anne, I hastily add - of people who pretend that it is possible to isolate a creator from the things he creates.
It isn't. No Wagner, no Ring - as Bob Marley might have put it. The man's odious ideology is part and parcel of the work. Eliminate it, and the Ring becomes a teddy bears' tea party.
The campaign to give Haitink to the world has hit new heights with another free download offer from Netherlands Radio. The very young Haitink cut his conducting teeth on its philharmonic orchestra in the late 1950s. Some of those broadcasts can be accessed here.
Repertory includes Grieg, Pijper, Brahms Bartok and Fauré. My thanks for the information to Rolf den Otter, who says it's easy to download the concerts if you have the right software (and a few words of Dutch).
Anne Brown created the role of Bess in George Gershwin's opera not just by singing the opening night in 1935 but by sitting on the composer's piano stool, prodding him to give her more to sing. Porgy and Bess is, by general consent, the first American opera. Anne Brown was the definitive Bess.
She continued to sing the role with the original cast until 1948, touring many parts of the US and appearing in a Gershwin biopic before the onslaught of racial prejudice led her to seek a better life in Norway. Stanley Henig reminds me that an original-cast recording of Porgy was taken on Decca and is still around on CD. Anne Brown is dead: you don't have to believe that if you don't want to.
She helped form what we think of as American heritage. Yet no part of US culture has stopped to pay her homage. No opera curtain has been held so that Peter Gelb or somesuch could share an Anne Brown moment with the audience. No music director - even in Baltimore - has revised a concert program to include a Bess tribute. And no-one in the White House has doffed his hat to a woman who showed the world how Black Americans lived. Has nobody told the President?
Anne Brown, who sang Bess in George Gershwin's original 1935 production of Porgy and Bess died last week, aged 96, in Norway, where she lived since her marriage 60 years ago.
What she did with the rest of her life is known chiefly to Norwegians, but a friend in Oslo describes her as a driving force in musical life, teacher of many of the country's best singers and actors - including Liv Ullmann - and, to the very last, 'the most beautiful creature in the whole world'.
Anne Brown attended the opening of the new opera house last year and rose from her wheelchair to receive a standing ovation.
Someone ought to tell President Obama. A moment's homage would be appropriate for one of the first women to show the world the real life of Black Americans. May she rest in peace.
You can hear her teaching and interviewed here. It's in Norwegian, but the warmth in that voice is irresistible.
The Times of London, which used to call itself a newspaper of record, has turned into the puff paper of the record industry.
Last week, the Times published a piece by its media correspondent about 13 year-old Faryl Smith, who appeared a year back on a television talent show and, though she lost, was signed by Universal Classics & Jazz (UCJ) - yes, them again - for a reputed £2.3 million ($3.1 million).
The comments of Dickon Stainer, UK head of UCJ and the man who signed the cheque, are worth quoting in extenso for future deconstruction. Stainer said: "She is our major international priority. She is an absolute once-in-a-generation talent. For her age there's probably never been anybody who can sing like she can. If she looks after her voice and is nurtured properly she will be successful all over the world. She can make classical music more accessible than any other artist since Pavarotti."
Right. So I guess we had better take her seriously. After all, the Times reports that 80,000 copies of her disc have been shipped, a higher volume than the new U2 album.
Today, the Sunday Times turns the advance hype into 'the fastest-selling solo classical album' and states that Faryl is 'expected' to break into the Top Ten. The record business used to pay for advertisements in Times Newspapers. Now they get promoted for free.
Faryl seems like a sweet young girl from Kettering, Northants. She admits that she neither listens to nor respects classical music. 'Classical singing is mainly aimed at older people,' she says. So why is she being published by Universal Classics & Jazz? And why is she is expected to make classical music more popular?
To crack these nuggets of wishful marketing, you need to hark back to recent events. UCJ last month demolished Decca label because its UK boss, Strainer, could not agree a policy with the international chief, Chris Roberts. A great classical heritage was sacrificed on the altar of their corporate feud.
UCJ is now shovelling its cash into crossover trash after Warner stole its headline act Katharine Jenkins and Sony outsold it with Il Divo. This is not a company that knows - or even remembers - what classical records are about. It is a pathetic, passive offshoot of couch-potato reality television.
Young Faryl herself is a familiar phenomenon. She was once called Charlotte Church. Then Paul Potts. She will go on to different things. Or not. Who cares?
What she will never be is a classical singer. It is a sombre sign of our knee-jerk times that two newspapers which once valued intellectual rigour now suspend their critical faculties at the sight of a pretty young face.
It's an opera that never fails.
Leos Janacek's psychodrama of a foster mother who murders her stepdaughter's illegitimate baby in order to protect her marriage chances united performers and audience in a communion of grief and horror. Tears are shed in all parts of the house, including the orchestra pit. Jenufa, created in 1904, is the first reality opera, a slice of everyone's life.
David Alden's production at English National Opera strips it back to the core relationship between two women and clarifies the back story by selective analyis, much in the way a good therapist would do. The men in the story are portrayed as awful and inadequate. Steva, the mill-owner who gets Jenufa pregnant, is a swaggering wastrel with the attention span of a farmyard chicken. Laca, his half-brother, is a social reject with domestic violence issues. Neither will ever find contentment. Jenufa is just a morsel in their path.
Janacek's original title, Her Foster-Daughter, says it all. This is an opera about an adult's dilemma, not the pain of young love. Jenufa, sung with beautiful restraint by the leading British soprano Amanda Roocroft, is not so much innocent as immature. Her stepmother, the formidable American Michaela Martens, is the moral authority of the village. Jenufa cannot grow up so long as her guardian takes all the decisions. Only when the older women commits a terrible crime can Jenufa find her own light.
Of all the Jenufas I have seen, David Alden's retelling is one that will not fade. Set in 1950s Czechoslovakia, it enjoys strong casting - Tom Randle as Steva, Robert Brubaker as Laca and many engaging cameos. The young Norwegian conductor, Eivind Gullberg Jensen (bookmark that name), displays a fine sensitivity for balance and rhythm. He gives the singers all the time they need for self-expression without permitting a nanosecond of self-indulgence.
The show was built around Roocroft who used it to announce her triumphant recovery from a mid-career dip. She may lack the Stanislavsky extremes of delight and sorrow, but a semi-muted emotional range in a landscape that is bleak rather than harsh was exactly what this production called for and Roocroft filled the role to overflowing. Hers is a Jenufa redefined for our present moral confusions.
Hot on the South Bank's announcement of a London residency by Gustavo Dudamel and his Venezuelan ensemble, the Barbican is introducing annual residencies by no fewer than four major-leaguers: the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam, the Gewandhaus of Leipzig and the philharmonic orchestras of New York and Los Angeles.
This is a bold diversification for a multi-disciplinary arts centre that depends heavily on the London Symphony Orchestra for its music. The visiting orchestras will spend a week there each year, giving three concerts and some chamber music recitals and doing a good deal of outreach and community work in needy districts to the east of London. The scheme is being engineered with no extra sources of funding and is the first big feather in the cap of Barbican boss, Sir Nicholas Kenyon.
It looks so good on paper that I hate to raise a quizzical eyebrow about the necessity of having Dudamel, MD of the LA Phil, at both London venues.
And I guess some folks back home might wonder why the New York Phil is doing social work in Bermondsey, Barking and Bow when they are not seen much in the Bronx.
It could be interesting to see how players who don't get out of bed for less than $120,000 a year interact with Somali immigrant kids who are lucky to get a full bowl of rice at night for supper. If the scheme is more than mere window-dressing, stand by for spiritual awakenings in the band.
Dear Michael Ignatieff
As a former colleague of yours on the BBC's Late Show in the 1990s, I want to draw your attention to a Canadian phenomenon which, though you are not yet prime minister, can be significantly remedied by your intervention. There may even be some votes in it.
You can guess what I'm referring to. It's the top-down dumbing down of arts and culture.
Canada is a country that punches creatively above its weight. Its diversity of authors -from Margaret Attwood and Carol Shields to Josef Skvorecky, Mordecai Richler and Ying Chen - are read the world over. Its musicians are widely heard and its theatrical style is distinctive. Like Britain, Canada has nurtured a national cultural renaissance by means of an enlightened state broadcaster and modest amounts of public subsidy.
Those gentle boosters are now in jeopardy. CBC Radio has converted its classical station to pick 'n' mix, and its classical presentation to low populism, demolishing cultural confidence.
To cite one current example. CBC is asking listeners to choose 49 Canadian songs to send to President Obama. Michael, could you ever imagine such cultural cringe at the BBC?
Another instance: the Canada Council for the Arts is scrapping subsidy for controlled-circulation literary and music magazines. I can't figure out the bureaucratic reasoning from afar and I should declare a tiny interest: my weekly column appears without fee on a website linked to one Canadian publication. These magazines nurture the grass roots of art. Scythe them down, and not much will grow tomorrow.
What can you do as leader of the opposition? Easy. The squeaky bums in broadcasting and arts councils (we have the same types over here) respond very swiftly to comments from an opposition leader shortly before an election. The bums don't want to lose their seats.
One speech, Michael, that's all it would take. One speech urging Canada to smarten up and stop dumbing down would put more heart into the arts and more arts in the world than a pack of Medicis. One word from you, and the bureaucrats will go upmarket.
Think about it. With a positive signal to Canada's creative furnace, your Liberals would stand for innovation and enlightenment, as distinct from the numbskull Conservatives. To borrow Isaiah Berlin's famous metaphor, you would be the fox and they the hedgehog - tomorrow's roadkill.
Forgive this intrusion from abroad. I have no right to interfere in Canadian affairs, except to wish the best for its arts. My justification is John Donne's: no man is an island. Canada's arts are important. If they shrink, the world suffers. They help to define what you and I would call civilisation. Get behind them, Michael, before the election.
With best wishes
Here are some breaking updates on recent stories in this blog.
- The free Haitink downloads have gone live in Holland - and in English. The first music comes free on March 9. Thanks to Rolf den Otter for these links.
- Rainer Mockert has sent me a brilliant user-friendly site for classical recordings. The group behind it, he reports, were 44 percent down on record sales in their shops but are enjoying a 5.8 percent rise online. You'll need German to get the most out of the site, but here's an English bite:
Our database currently includes around 390,000 CDs, 31,000 DVDs, more than 2,000,000 books, and 23,000 special interest offers like vinyl LPs, SACDs, and music DVDs, so that no wish is left unfulfilled. Moreover, we have more than 4,000 PC, console, and board games as well an amazing number of dirt-cheap offers and limited items on the offer pages and in the bargain market.
- From Australia, I'm delighted to hear that Libby Christie, who turned around the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, is taking charge of national arts funding. And from Canada .... oh, Canada. I guess that'll have to be another day's blog.
I try to update old blogs with Late Extra breaking updates, so do check back.
LATE EXTRA: And New York has woken up this morning to a stunning new opera reviewer - it's the Post taking on the Times in the sleepwalker stakes. More of it, please.
The BBC's Culture Show ran a 30-minute special last night on Alfred Brendel. It went out at 11.20 pm and showed no more than 30 seconds at a stretch - at least so long as my eyelids stayed up - of the cheeky chappie doing what he used to do best, which is playing the piano.
Instead, the media-savvy conductor Charles Hazlewood quizzed Mr Brendel reverentially about his poetry, which he recited with seesawing eyebrows, a feat I have not seen replicated since the early years of television comedy.
Mr Hazlewood expressed polite surprise that the rhythm and metre of the poems was so musical. Mr Brendel was charmed by that exceptionally acute critical observation.
What was the BBC doing putting out such obsequious blether? Nothing for classical music.
Take one of the great living pianists, but don't show him playing a movement of a Beethoven sonata. Oh no, that might lose audience share, even when the show is carefully put out after all but the night shift have gone to bed.
BBC Television is frightened and ashamed of classical music. Mark Thompson, the director general, wishes it were otherwise. But his policy directive has so far made no impact whatsoever on the production teams and the channel controllers.
Imagine what went on at the planning meeting.
Charlie: Alfred Brendel is about to retire - you know, the great pianist.
Adam: What does he play?
Charlie: Beethoven, Mozart, a little Schubert.
Adam: Not for our audience.
Charlie: He does other things, you know. He writes nonsense verse.
Adam: That's interesting. Like Edward Lear, you mean?
Charlie: More T. S. Eliot.
Adam: Wasn't he the one that wrote Cats with Andrew Lloyd Webber? OK, go for it - but no classical music, mind. Not on my watch.
Telarc, the first label to issue a digital release, has ceased production.
The founder, Robert Woods, will leave this month, along with the chief recording engineer, Michael Bishop. Half the workforce has been laid off - that's 26 jobs - and the backlist becomes heritage. More details here.
Telarc had first call, as local patriots, on the superb Cleveland Orchestra and the quality of its sound was an audiophile's delight. The label won 40 Grammys over the years and produced 800 recordings across several genres.
My guess is that its all-time bestseller was Wagner's Ring Without Words, an improvement in certain respects on the original in a concept created by the conductor Lorin Maazel. Of late, the label blazed a trail for Paavo Järvi and his Cincinnati band. It has yet another version of the Gorecki third symphony coming up from Atlanta.
A sound philosophy, though, is not enough to save a label. Telarc, for all its merits, never took much risk by way of extending repertoire when the going was easy. I am really sad to see its purist values fall by the wayside and I fear that executives in the major labels will be encouraged by its fall to cut corners and compromise standards still further.
Telarc's values, however, endure as a permanent record. Its disappearance suggests that, in times of technological and financial upheaval, only by using creative imagination as a driving force can a musical enterprise be saved from extinction.
The sackings have started at Decca. Out of 32 staff at the London headquarters, just six are being retained.
That is one to manage the office, one to answer the phone and open the mail, two to look after the royalty accounts and two more to deal with whatever instructions come down from corporate headquarters.
One thing is clear: there is nobody left at Decca to make records.
Classical artists, including the now-celebrated Tutula Bartley, are being transferred to Universal Classics and Jazz (UCJ), a crossover business that produces such half-baked trivia as the boy band Blake and the East London lad who gave up his junior football career to play the saxophone. Cecilia will feel in good company.
The residual staff at Decca will report to Michael Lang, head of Deutsche Grammophon in Hamburg.
The notion that Decca will continue to function as a production centre after these abolitionary measures is a mixture of wishful thinking and corporate fiction. The author of the fantasy is Christopher Roberts, head of UCJ.
Roberts once tried to persuade me that corporate ciphers like himself earn huge salaries and bonuses in order to protect madcap artists from their wild whims and maximise the revenue potential from their works. Given that Roberts has dedicated so much of his energy to eliminating outlets for classical artists, I wonder if should perhaps think of revising his job description - so long as he still has a job.
Decca is dead. A grand tradition has been laid waste. What remains is history - and a golden opportunity to reinvent the spirit of enterprise in classical music.
Newbies and start-ups, post your plans and logos in the comment space below.
LATE EXTRA: A sharp-eyed reader directs me to a news release from Universal Music Group, the monster that killed Decca. UMG has just appointed three more vice-presidents, just what the music world most needs right now, to 'erase lines between physical and digital'.
One of the new bonus-guzzlers is called Rotter, Mitch Rotter. You couldn't make it up.
AJ BlogsAJBlogCentral | rss
Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
rock culture approximately
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
No genre is the new genre
David Jays on theatre and dance
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
John Rockwell on the arts
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Martha Bayles on Film...
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
Exploring Orchestras w/ Henry Fogel
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds
Jerome Weeks on Books
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world
Public Art, Public Space
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary
Tyler Green's modern & contemporary art blog